Vote Notes: Amendments to the Make America Secure Act
A little more catch-up…in this case on some of the amendments the House voted on last week to the Make America Secure Act. This Act was a package of four smaller spending bills to fund the Defense Department, Energy Department, Veterans Affairs Department, military construction projects, and the Legislative Branch.
Let me give you a few details on what I viewed as some of the more important amendments.
Several targeted the Congressional Budget Office, either in terms of reducing its funding, functionality, or both. Two of those amendments received votes. The first, offered by Rep. Scott Perry, would have cut funding for the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) in half. The second, offered by Rep. Morgan Griffith, would have eliminated the CBO’s Budget Analysis Division, which produces projections of federal spending and cost estimates for legislative policy proposals.
I voted against both of these amendments for a number of reasons but by no means does that indicate I am satisfied with the work CBO has been producing. Often times in life it's better to fix something and improve it than it is to completely discard it. Such is the case with the Congressional Budget Office. I don't like many of their forecasts, but the idea of going to an average of private forecasts would be even more disastrous. In that scenario, Republicans would pick the forecast that suited their purposes while the Democrats did the same. I think our debt and spending problems are too big to let the party that controls the House or Senate drive economic forecast...economic forecasts should be based on an economic forecast, not politics.
Neither amendment passed.
An amendment offered by Rep. Brendan Boyle may end up being pretty important healthwise for people living around some of our military bases back home. The amendment would increase environmental restoration funding for both the Navy and the Air Force to remove perfluorooctanesulfonic acid (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) that has made its way into drinking water near a number of military installations across the nation, including in the Lowcountry. Elevated levels of these harmful chemicals have now been found at over 600 sites in current and former military installations around the United States. As recently as 2016, 26 sites in South Carolina were being investigated for this contamination, including six at Joint Base Charleston Air Base, three at Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, and three at Marine Corps Recruiting Depot Parris Island. Perfluorinated compounds were included in firefighting foam used by the military at fire training sites for decades beginning in the 1970s. All of us have responsibility to clean up our own messes...this goes from making the bed, to perfluorinated compounds. I therefore voted for the amendment, which passed, 256 to 169.
Rep. Jerry Nadler once again brought his amendment forward on indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, and I voted for the amendment, as I have the last four times it was offered. It failed 172 to 252. To restate my position, I join with the people here at home, and the rest of the South Carolina delegation, in being opposed to detainees from Guantanamo being brought to the Navy Brig in North Charleston. But, I do see several problems with not addressing the issue of indefinite detention.
Our Founding Fathers were emphatic in their opposition to the possibility to holding someone indefinitely without resolution. They purposefully injected rights to a speedy trial and habeas corpus into our Constitution...and these principles apply even to prisoners held on US-controlled soil. If one believes that the Constitution is to reign supreme in our system of government, we have to adhere to it, even when it’s hard. I understand that terrorism is a new war without the traditional boundaries of nation states, but a new threat does not require we abandon existing institutions.
We have dealt before on the issue of enemy combatants and what to do with them. In the wake of World War II, we held a host of military tribunals that brought justice. There were not the same levels of protections that were offered American citizens, but based on this lower threshold of required evidence, we convicted many who had attempted to bring harm to our nations and the soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines who were working to defend our country. When a verdict was rendered, we either set people free or took them out back and shot them. There was finality and certainty to the process. Holding someone for 30, 40, or 50 years erodes this notion of bringing people to justice. It also does not enhance our security because we originally held some detainees because we believed we could gather information that would be useful to our forces. After they’ve been detained for twenty years, they’re so far removed from the battlefield that they have nothing in the way of intelligence to further offer. Finally, staying with the status quo costs us a lot, when a single bullet can be much less expensive.
Let me explore this thought...as of January 2017, there are 41 prisoners still being held there at a total annual cost of about $450 million. That comes out to approximately $11 million per detainee per year. Compare that to housing a prisoner at the federal super maximum security prison in Colorado, where it costs about $60,000 per year...or in other words about 183 times less. I am not saying Colorado is the answer, just that we should be open to alternatives, given its remote location and the fact that there has never been an escape from a supermax detention facility. I most favor military trial - and the remedy I believe would come with it.
An amendment offered by Rep. Steve King would have prohibited any funds appropriated in this bill from being used to enforce Davis-Bacon wage requirements. The Davis-Bacon Act, now 86 years old, authorizes the payment of a “prevailing wage” for workers on federal construction projects. The original intent was to protect local workers from large national contractors that could offer lower bids for federal projects by bringing in lower-priced workers.
However, Davis-Bacon predates the establishment of federal minimum wage laws, other labor protection laws, and a whole host of government regulations concerning fair bidding for contracts. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Davis-Bacon will actually drive up labor costs for federal construction projects to the tune of $15.7 billion over the next 10 years. Congress owes it to the American people to ensure that their tax dollars are being spent as effectively and efficiently and it’s for this reason I voted in favor of the amendment, which failed, 178 to 249.